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Militant Cleric's Killing Sparks Violence in Pakistan - 2004-05-30

Mass riots have erupted across Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, after the assassination of one of the country's top religious leaders.

Gunmen in two cars and on a motorcycle shot dead Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai in front of his Karachi home early Sunday morning.

The identities of the killers is not yet known, but provincial Interior Minister Aftab Sheikh says the killing was a well-planned operation.

"It was premeditated, calculated," he said. "They were all ready, waiting to ambush him, and when he came from his apartment, they were ready to shoot him. So, they shot him."

Mr. Shamzai was one of the most respected leaders of Pakistan's majority Sunni Muslim community. While harshly critical of the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was considered a religious moderate.

His students included the former leader of Afghanistan's Taleban regime, Mullah Omar. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Mr. Shamzai was part of an unsuccessful effort to convince Mullah Omar to hand over accused terrorist Osama bin Laden.

News of Sunday's assassination sparked large-scale rioting, with thousands of protesters burning cars, smashing shops and attacking police throughout the city.

Gun fights were also being reported in Ancholi, a Karachi neighborhood that is home to many of the city's minority Shi'ite Muslims.

Although Pakistani Shi'ites and Sunnis normally have good relations, extremists on both sides continue to commit acts of sectarian terrorism against each other's populations.

Earlier this month, 23 Shi'ite worshipers were killed and more than 100 injured in a suicide attack on a large Shi'ite mosque in Karachi.

Mr. Sheikh blamed Sunday's rioting on what he described as "rightist elements," including religious extremists. He said he expected the violence to continue, until Mr. Shamzai's funeral Sunday evening.

"We have deployed the police force all along in the city, [and] we also deployed rangers, because the burial is to take place after sunset. Until the time that the burial takes place, this situation will go on," he said.

The killing of Mr. Shamzai follows the assassination of an extremist Sunni cleric, Maulana Azam Tariq, who was shot in the capital, Islamabad, late last year.